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April brings mystery tribute to grave site

April 7, 2008 12:15 am


The headstones on Confederate soldiers' graves are seen in the fog in historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, N.C.


Raleigh News & Observer


--Each April, a stranger creeps into Oakwood Cemetery and drapes a single gravestone with a black sash.

He lights a candle in tribute to a doomed Confederate hanged for firing a last-ditch shot at Raleigh's Yankee occupiers.

Chuck Gooch has spent 21 years as the cemetery's superintendent and hasn't any idea who leaves the sash on the tomb of the soldier known only as Lt. Walsh. "We usually leave it up until it starts looking bad or the wind takes it down," he said.

After 20 years, the soldier's secret admirer remains a small-time legend among history buffs who like to guess at his identity. The guessing begins anew each April 13, the death date of the hotheaded Texan with no known first name.

One theory: "They come down on the day he was hanged," said Charles Purser, a retiree who makes a hobby of studying Civil War graves. "Then they go back to their houses and drink mint juleps."

The Oakwood hill is dotted with Civil War dead, the silent tombstones offering hundreds of stories that might inspire a midnight visitor every April for 20 years. None carry more over-the-top Southern drama than Walsh's story.

On April 13, 1865, Walsh fired six potshots at the Union cavalry as it marched into a surrendered Raleigh.

Stories about what prompted his shooting vary.

There is even disagreement about whether Walsh fired deliberately into the air or aimed for Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, Union cavalry commander.

Regardless, Walsh fell captive to Yankee pursuers. He was immediately sentenced to hang.

"They just strung him up right there," said Thomas Smith, lieutenant commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, North Carolina division.

Walsh became an instant martyr, a symbol of the dying Confederacy. "He was a hero to Raleigh women," said Bill Hutchins, a lifelong Raleigh resident and amateur historian. "They laid flowers on his grave for six months."

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.